Costa Rica has been a beacon of peace in a conflict- and crime-ridden region since the abolition of its armed forces in 1948, yet a rise in violent crime in recent years has pressured the government to develop innovative and effective security strategies in order to retain the country’s peaceful image.
In early December, Costa Ricans celebrated the 70th anniversary of an armyless state. Since abolition, the country has experienced economic growth at a rate far above the regional average, with the GDP per capita tripling since 1960.
Despite having traditionally suffered far less from the organized crime-related issues that plague many of its neighbors, murder rates in Costa Rica have risen steadily since 2013. Homicide rates hit a record high last year and 2018 may prove deadlier yet, with an estimated death toll of 625.
The Costa Rican government has sought help from other countries in the region to combat the alarming rise in crime rates.
President Carlos Alvarado has recently implemented a new security strategy, based on a public security program which has proved successful in the Colombian city of Medellín. The United States government has invested $7.5 million in the plan.
In effect since September, “Creating Security” (Sembremos Seguridad) focuses on citizen participation to identify the most pressing security concerns in each of the country’s 82 administrative divisions. The national government will then collaborate with local forces to provide social investment or undertake police action to tackle the flagged issues.
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As crime rates in Costa Rica continue to rise, the recent commitment to a citizen-focused security plan suggests that the government is determined to prove its ability to tackle organized crime without resorting to aggressive tactics.
The lack of a military remains one of Costa Rica’s most laudable achievements in a region prone to internal conflict, and in which militarized security forces have continuously proved to be costly and ineffective.
Rather than pursuing an aggressive or reactionary security line, “Sembremos Seguridad” indicates a long-term dedication to fighting organized crime and violence through public policy and citizen engagement.
The aim is to suppress the root causes of crime in each community, building security foundations from the ground up, rather than the usual heavy-handed, top-down approach.
Comprehensive data collection will allow the government to target security strategies specifically to each municipality, facilitating a more effective distribution of resources. The plan also stresses the integration of local security strategies with federal plans, with the aim of formulating a cohesive public security policy in the long term.
However, more urgent action may be needed to tackle the alarming increase in insecurity, which has already caused significant damage to the country’s international reputation.
In recent years, homegrown criminal groups have expanded, becoming more sophisticated and diverse in their activities. Influenced by larger, transnational criminal organizations, Costa Rican groups have begun to tap into the profitable illicit economies of oil theft and illegal gold mining, as well as the more traditional drugs trade.
Furthermore, the uptick in violence now threatens to impair one of the country’s major sources of revenue.
A wave of gruesome murders targeting tourists in recent months may significantly impact Costa Rica’s tourism industry. Long-favored for its relative safety and beautiful natural landscapes, tourism represented almost 7% of the country’s gross domestic product in 2017, and generates around 211,000 jobs annually.
In 2017, the number of visitors from the United States dropped for the first time in a decade, as security concerns began to take root.
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